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Spring Waterfowl Photography – Northern Pintail Ducks

Spring Waterfowl Photography - Northern Pintail Ducks

As a commercial outdoor, wildlife, and nature photographer I’m constantly drawn to unique wildlife photography opportunities, particularly when there is real action. One can hardly ignore jet fighters flying in formation. Sometimes we stop the car just to watch the display. People even pay money to go to air shows just to watch them fly. What does that have to do with nature photography? Northern Pintail Ducks are the F-16 of the duck world.

The annual migration of waterfowl is underway across Montana. It’s one of my favorite times of year. The days are getting longer, the ice is melting off our rivers and lakes, the weather is unsettled, clouds are always changing, and the light is useful nearly all day. Of all the waterfowl I watch, my favorite species to photograph are pintails.

On a recent three day trip to my favorite waterfowl location in Montana, I was reminded of just how much fun and challenging it is to photograph pintail ducks. For every “keeper” I must have a hundred shots that go in the trash. Pintails are easy to identify in the spring. Their colorful feathers and sharp, pointed tail are present only during the breeding season, much to the dismay of most hunters. The colorful males don’t carry their tail during the fall when most hunters see them down the sights of their shotguns. Pins, as they are called, fly fast, really fast!  In fact they are one of the fasts ducks in north American, and when multiple birds fly together, in formation they are a thrill to watch!

This photograph shows a typical, “courtship flight,” consisting of several males and one female (the female is hidden behind the males). These flights occur on and off throughout the day. The group of pintails, usually four to as many as a dozen consisting of mostly males and one to two females, will fly swiftly, rinsing and dodging above the water in a remarkable display of speed, accuracy and agility. In this photograph, a male sprig (another word for pintail) takes flight.

Pintail courtship flight

“Pintail courtship flight over water” Nikon d300, nikon 500 f/4 af-s vr, f/8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 400. RRS carbon fiber tripod with leveling base, and King Cobra gimble head. I’m sitting on the edge of a pond, tucked into the cattails , covered by a home made blind constructed from a large sheet of advantage wetlands camo. The lens is shielded by identical camo material sewn directly into the blind, the lens protrudes though the “sock.”  Pintails can see color so I like to blend in as much as possible. Photo: © tonybynum.com, all rights reserved.

 

Male "sprig" northern pintail takes flight

“Male Northern Pintail takes flight.” nikon d300, nikon 500 f4, af-s vr, tc 1.4, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec., ISO 400. Photo: © tonybynum.com, all rights reserved.

Typical day:

1. find birds before sunrise;
2. hike to a suitable location;
3. get in my portable hide/blind before sun up;
4. sit on butt and at times knees till it gets dark all the while following the birds with my camera and lens mounted on a gimble head.

Could you ask for anything more fun!  I didn’t think so! Next time, more waterfowl, one of north America’s most prolific wildlife displays, the migration of the snow geese . . .  Stay tuned!

Sincerely, Tony Bynum